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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Chickens Agree: Counting From Left Works Best

This is the way I view numbers, along a spatia...
This is the way I view numbers, along a spatial sequence. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Chicken, anyone?


Asked to picture the numbers from one to 10, most people will imagine a straight line with one at the left end and 10 at the right.

This “mental number line,” as researchers have termed it, is so pervasive that some scientists have argued that the spatial representation of numbers is hard-wired into the brain, part of a primitive number system that underlies humans’ capacity for higher mathematics.

Now Italian researchers have found that newborn chicks, like humans, appear to map numbers spatially, in the same way.

The chicks, trained to seek out mealworms behind white plastic panels printed with varying numbers of identical red squares, repeatedly demonstrated a preference for the left when the number of squares was small and for the right when the number was larger. The research, led by Rosa Rugani, a psychologist who at the time was at the University of Padova, appeared in the journal Science.

The researchers said the findings supported the idea that the left-right orientation for numbers is innate rather than determined by culture or education – a possibility that was raised by some studies that found that in Arabic-speaking countries where letters and numbers are read right to left, the mental number scale was reversed. But the new research, Dr. Rugani and her colleagues wrote, indicates that orienting numbers in space may represent “a universal cognitive strategy available soon after birth.”

Tyler Marghetis, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of California, San Diego, said: “We have brains that evolved for fighting and finding food, not for doing calculus. So one of the hopes of this kind of research is that it will tell us something about the basic building blocks we have access to in building up these more human concepts.”

But Mr. Marghetis said that the studies demonstrated only that the chicks associated rough quantities that were smaller or larger with left or right, not that they represented precise numbers in a mental line. And he cautioned against leaping to the idea that chicks are capable of the same complex abilities as humans.

Judging amounts, either of how much food is available or how many predators are nearby, is an important tool for survival. And many nonhuman species – including chickens, monkeys and even some fish – have some ability to count, though these may be a capacity to distinguish rough numerical magnitude rather than precise numbers.

Human studies indicate that when presented with a task involving numbers people automatically create a mental scale, using one number as an anchor and locating smaller numbers to the left and larger ones to the right. The new research suggests that some version of this may be true for chickens. “We cannot think of any other, and simpler, explanation for the behavior of the chicks than assuming the training number is 1) remembered and 2) compared with the number seen at test,” Dr. Rugani said in an email.

Taken from TODAY Saturday Edition, The New York Times International Weekly, March 14, 2015

Saturday, March 21, 2015

For Healthier Rice, Bacteria Deployed to Fight a Poison

Mature rice panicle against blue sky. Part of ...
Mature rice panicle against blue sky. Part of the image collection of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Harsh Bais grows rice plants in trays of water in his greenhouse at the University of Delaware, he can easily spot the ones that have been exposed to arsenic: They are stunted, with shorter stems and shrunken leaves.

Dr. Bais is working to develop rice plants that take up less arsenic, a common contaminant in the fields of his native India and other Asian countries. Chronic exposure to arsenic has been linked to heart disease, diabetes and genetic damage associated with elevated risks for cancer.

But instead of trying to breed new strains of rice or alter its DNA, he and other scientists are looking at the vast microbial community that lives near the rice’s roots.

These bacteria are the botanic equivalent of the human microbiome – the trillions of organisms that live in our guts, many performing beneficial tasks like digesting food and fighting off infection.

The hope is to find bacteria that will somehow block arsenic. In the past three years, Dr. Bais has isolated about a dozen bacterial species, added them to plants and looked for signs of arsenic poisoning.

Now, he says, he has zeroed in on one species, Pantoea agglomerans, that seems to reduce arsenic in the stem to one-eighth its former levels.

“Research on the plant microbiome is very hot because everyone is trying to find things that can increase growth and yield,” said Dr. Bais, an associate professor at Delaware.

For scientists interested in tweaking plant traits, there is a list longer than ever of bacteria to investigate. Advances in DNA sequencing have made it possible to identify large groups of related bacteria from different plant types and soil conditions.

Agricultural companies are already using bacteria on seeds of major crops such as corn and soybeans to help them bear more fruit or require less fertilizer. This year, Monsanto entered a partnership with Novozymes, a Danish company that sells more than 200 biologic products, to test organisms from the corn and soybean microbiomes at thousands of field sites.

A study of the rice microbiome is underway in the lab of Venkatesan Sundaresan, at the University of California, Davis. Using DNA sequencing, he has found at least a quarter-million bacterial species in the rice microbiome.

Dr. Sundaresan is also interested in the functions of individual microbes. So he is collaborating with Dr. Bais, shipping him soil from rice roots in his test field in Davis.

P. agglomerans is the first microbe that has been shown to reduce arsenic in rice. While the microbe appears to keep most arsenic out of the rice’s stem and leaves, the crucial question is how it affects the grain.

Microbes for crops have the reputation of being finicky.” said Tom Adams, vice president for chemistry technology at Monsanto. But he added that new technology could help predict which microbes would work best in different soil and environmental conditions.

Taken from TODAY Saturday Edition, The New York Times International Weekly, September 27, 2014

Friday, March 6, 2015

Success Is Not Just About Smarts

English: Logo of One Laptop per Child
English: Logo of One Laptop per Child (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I like this article. Not that it disregards technology, but it enforces the truth, that with or without technology, our basis for success is not only intelligence. I mean, being smart gives you a headstart, but grit - fortitude and determination, coupled with persistence, and all of the other good values - these what makes the basis for making it good in life. But then again, it is not a guarantee...


Technology has been promoted as the great equalizer in education. Initiatives like One Laptop Per Child and Massive Online Open Courses were supposed to democratize learning, but when the $400 laptops given to poor children around the world broke, and failure rates of some MOOCs were as high as 75 percent, reality set in.

Though many believe that computers can shrink the education gap, research shows that giving students from poor families online access is more likely to widen the divide, Susan Pinker reported in The Times. Jacob Vigdor and Helen Ladd, economists at Duke University in North Carolina, tracked a million disadvantaged middle-school students for five years after they were given networked computers and found “a persistent decline in reading and math scores,” they wrote. The scores of boys and African-Americans dropped drastically because many used their machines to play games, surf social media and download entertainment.

The same thing happened in the One Laptop project, with children spending less time on their homework than before, researchers found.

New findings suggest that educators should focus more on low teacher-student ratios, early intervention and character traits.

Chicago has introduced an intensive program where black and Latino boys work two on one with a tutor, and participants have ended up as much as two years ahead of students who haven’t gotten help, David Kirp wrote in The Times. This math success also has put them on track to graduate, helped them engage in school and made them less likely to be arrested for a violent crime.

Many programs address the time between birth and age 3, but the teen years may be just as important. Laurence Steinberg, a psychologist at Temple University in Philadelphia, points out in his new book that neuroscientists have realized that adolescence, like early childhood, Is a “period of tremendous ‘neuroplasticity,’ ” during which the brain changes through experience.

The Time’s Nicholas Kristof wrote that early help for disadvantaged children not only reduces inequality but also can save public money. He quoted James Heckman, a University of Chicago professor and Nobel Prize-winning economists, who says the cheapest way to reduce crime is to invest in early childhood programs. Mr. Heckman has calculated that to get the same reduction in crime by adding police officers would cost five times as much.

“Early education” includes counseling at-risk pregnant women not to drink, smoke or take drugs, and then after birth, helping them breast-feed and read to the child. These help, Mr.Kristof wrote, “apparently because the first few years are the window when the brain is forming and when basic skills like self-control and grit are developed.”

At some schools, grit, self- control and curiosity are now part of the curriculum. Scientists say personality could be more important than intelligence when it comes to success in school.

Arthur E. Poropat, an Australian psychology professor, cites data showing that a tendency to be “diligent, dutiful and hardworking,” and qualities like creativity and curiosity, are more predictive of student performance than intelligence. This is good news, Dr. Poropat wrote in a paper last year, because “personality has been demonstrated to change over time to a far greater extent than intelligence.”

“We probably need to start rethinking our emphasis on intelligence,” he told The Times.

Mandy Benedix, who teaches a class on grit at Rogers Middle School in Pearland, Texas, told The Times: “We know that these non-cognitive traits can be taught. We also know that it is necessary for success. You look at anybody who has had long-term sustainable success, and every one of them exhibited at some point this grit, this tenacity to keep going.”

Taken from TODAY Saturday Edition, The New York Times International Weekly, February 28, 2015